As a Muslim American woman, I am part of the most racially and ethnically diverse group in the country. According to a survey done by Pew, 30 percent of Muslim Americans report their race as white, 23 percent as black, 21 percent as Asian, 6 percent as Hispanic and 19 percent as other or mixed race. Among the native-born Muslims, 40 percent identify as black. However, despite being the largest section of the Muslim community, black people are not seen as normative Muslims by the media or other immigrant-origin Muslims. Their voices and concerns are mostly sidelined while they face racism on an individual and institutional level.
When talking about racism, Muslim Americans will often ask the following questions.
Did you know Malcolm X was a Muslim?
Did you know Muslims have been at the forefront of the historic civil rights movement?
Did you know there is no racism in Islam?
Did you know that Prophet Muhammad declared that a white person has no superiority over a black person?
Did you know that two of Muhammad’s wet nurses were black and he used to lovingly call them “my mother”?
But such declarations only lead to a feel-good, superficial conversation on the topic while the blatant realities of racism in the Muslim communities are not addressed.
On the individual level, racism exists in the form of derogatory terms used to describe blacks (“abd” means slave), treating them as second-class Muslims, giving them suspicious stares and showing an excessive inclination toward those with lighter skin. This bias runs so deep, especially among immigrant Muslim families, that marriage proposals from black Muslims are rejected on the basis of their dark skin alone. One Southern black man tells the story of his conversion to Islam. While he found peace in Islam’s teachings, he continues to face racism within the Muslim community just as he had from others before Islam entered his life. The language changed (from “nigger” to “zenci”), but the abuse was the same. His is a heart-wrenching tale of a man failing to find dignity and honor from the followers of justice.
In addition, in many cities like Chicago and Detroit, Muslim store owners sell liquor in the low-income African American neighborhoods. These Muslim store owners unknowingly contribute to institutional racism that normalizes alcohol abuse, perpetuating violence and crime there.
There is also a history of highjacking black heroes and their causes by other Muslims for organizational or self gain. During the attacks on Gaza earlier this year, parallels were drawn between Gaza and Ferguson, Mo., to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians. Hind Makki, formerly with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and now a blogger at Patheos.com, explains that “all American Muslims are proud of the legacy of African American Muslim luminaries such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” Yet, there is largely an indifference toward black causes and issues. This insensitivity reflects a lack of understanding that non-black American Muslims have of their own privilege over black Muslims — just like some white Americans.
The events in Ferguson, and in New York surrounding the case of Eric Garner, who died after police used a chokehold while trying to arrest him, have sparked a conversation among Muslims about racism within our community. One writer calls out the concern trolls who ask questions like, “Why only Ferguson? Why not Syria?” Such questions can derail the conversation and reveal callousness toward black causes. These same people also use hashtags like #MuslimsForFerguson and #MikeBrown to quote verses of the Quran without any constructive contribution to the societal discourse on racism. By putting themselves at the forefront, they push legitimate black voices out of the way. It makes one wonder whether they really want justice or just two seconds for a sensationalized tweet.
Such dichotomy is detrimental and goes against every Islamic principle of justice. The Quran clearly states: “O you who believe, maintain justice in each and every way possible even though it may be against your own self, your parents or your relatives” (4:135)
With such a clear command to stand up for justice, there is no excuse to distance ourselves from Ferguson. Moreover, what many Muslims don’t realize is that such unjust attitudes come back to hurt them. The same system that discriminates against black people also monitors Muslim bodies and lives. Pre-9/11 it was only “black while driving.” Post- 9/11, “Muslim while flying” has been added to the list. When the civil liberties of one group are violated, it is not long before other groups are wronged, as well. This is a lesson all Americans need to learn.
In our quest for justice, a critical communal introspection will go a long way. Only as we acknowledge our prejudices can we begin to dismantle the existing structures of racism. For Muslim Americans, it means asking ourselves some tough questions about how black Muslims are perceived and received in the community.
Today we are calling for justice for Eric Garner and Michael Brown. But if they had walked into a mosque, would they have been warmly received? Or met with suspicious glares?